By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
The history of California is tied to the 21 Spanish missions that were built between 1769 and 1823 along a coastal route extending from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north. Many times we have started at the Mexican border and followed this northward path, called El Camino Real, or the King’s Highway. It’s one of our favorite journeys during the winter or spring. Here are 13 of our favorite missions to visit.
1. San Diego De Acalá, San Diego
This first mission in California was established in 1769; burned down in an Indian attack; rebuilt; destroyed by an earthquake; rebuilt; held in private hands for 17 years; and then returned to the Church. The original dam and water system from the mission still can be seen in a nearby regional park, and recent excavations have uncovered the original tile floors.
2. San Luis, Rey De Francia, Oceanside
Named in honor of King Luis IX of France, San Luis Rey contains a mixture of Mexican, Moorish, and Spanish architectural influences. This mission had the largest number of American Indian converts, and the grounds contain the oldest pepper tree in California. Many buildings are original, including the church, the cemetery wall, and the laundry area. Others are reconstructions of those that were present in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
3. San Juan Capistrano. San Juan Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano. San Juan Capistrano, in the town of the same name, is the largest mission complex built in California, and is perhaps most famous for the yearly celebration of the return of the swallows on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19). The Serra Chapel is one of the oldest buildings in California. San Juan Capistrano is nicknamed the “Jewel of the Missions” for its beautiful gardens.
4. San Gabriel Arcángel, San Gabriel
This mission was founded in 1771 and became one of the wealthiest of all the early missions thanks to its extensive agriculture and large herds of cattle. Three of the original buildings remain standing, and the museum contains one of the finest collections of mission relics in existence. San Gabriel also was used as a staging ground by the original founders of the city of Los Angeles.
5. San Fernando, Rey De España, San Fernando
You may have seen this mission in movies even if you have never traveled west. Located near Hollywood, it has been used in many films. The “convento,” which was used as overnight lodging for travelers, still retains furniture of the period. It is the largest two-story adobe structure in earthquake-prone California.
6. San Buenaventura, Ventura
Once surrounded by orchards, vineyards, and grain fields, San Buenaventura is now in the heart of downtown Ventura. This was the last mission personally founded by Father Junípero Serra, who was responsible for planning the entire mission chain. San Buenaventura prospered from a reservoir and a 7-mile-long aqueduct built to supply water to the fields. In the mission museum you can see two wooden bells, the only ones used in the California missions.
7. Santa Barbara
This beautiful mission, located in the town named after it, has twin bell towers and was known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It features the most elaborate water system of all the missions, and, in fact, one of the large reservoirs is still used by the city of Santa Barbara today. This mission is used to store many major documents for the entire mission chain, as well as sheet music from the mission era.
8. Santa Inés, Solvang
Called the “Hidden Gem” of the missions, because it was far off El Camino Real, this is still an active parish church for approximately 1,000 families. The church and convent are the original structures. The mission contains a collection of paintings, statuary, vestments, manuscripts, and artifacts. A taped audio tour is available in the gift shop.
9. La Purísima Concepción, Lompoc
In the mid-1800s this mission was completely abandoned, and only in the 1930s were reconstruction efforts undertaken. The mission, now part of a historic park maintained by the state of California, has been so completely restored that it is considered the only example in California of a “complete” mission complex. Most of the work was done by the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The site is now managed by California State Parks as a living history museum with a church and 37 craft and residence rooms.
10. San Luis Obispo De Tolosa, San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is the only “L”-shaped church among all the missions. It is one of the first to incorporate a tile roof as a fire-prevention method, a practice that became common in Southwestern architecture. It is also one of only two missions that still has people serving as bell ringers; in fact, five new bells were recently added. The mission operates as an active parish today.
11. San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo, Carmel
This is the second mission constructed on California’s El Camino Real. The San Carlos Borromeo mission, better known as Carmel, is believed to be the most authentic restoration in the entire mission chain. It is the burial place of Father Junípero Serra, founder of the mission system in California. The stone church is different from the other missions in that its walls taper inward to form a catenary arch, and its bell tower has an outside stairway.
12. San Juan Bautista
The town of San Juan Bautista has the largest of the California mission churches, and we know it well, having once lived within walking distance of it. The mission is built right next to the San Andreas earthquake fault “” perhaps that’s why some of its walls are 3 feet thick. It has had an unbroken succession of pastors since its founding on June 24, 1797.
13. San Francisco De Asís (Mission Dolores), San Francisco
The mission church, now known as Dolores, is the oldest building in San Francisco, standing firm even through the 1906 earthquake. Only the church and the cemetery remain from the old mission, but the inside of the church is much as it was when Indian workmen created the redwood beams for the ceiling.